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Ala. Makes Good on Evacuation Route Deal 40 Years Later

Wed June 18, 2008 - Southeast Edition
Kerry Lynn Kirby

Back in 1967, Alabama and Florida made a deal to create a four-lane emergency evacuation route stretching from Florida’s Gulf Coast to Interstate 65 through both states’ Escambia counties.

“Florida did their part; Alabama did not,” said Flomaton, Ala., Mayor Dewey Bondurant Jr., who keeps a copy of an original Florida Department of Transportation letter outlining the plan in a file on the project.

The four-laning of U.S. 29, stretching from Pensacola, Fla., to the Alabama line, was finished decades ago. But when Alabama ran out of money to complete its end of the bargain by four-laning AL 113, the effort stalled and the rights of way purchased to accommodate the other two lanes sat waiting.

Bondurant said the broken deal has been a source of frustration for his town, just north of the Alabama border from Florida, which has had to contend with traffic bottlenecks as vehicles evacuating during a hurricane cross the state line from Florida’s four-lane U.S. 29 and feed on to a two-lane AL 113 for the rest of the trek to I-65.

The Atlantic hurricane season began June 1 and runs through November. During Hurricane Ivan in September 2004, people fleeing the storm were trapped in stalled traffic on AL 113. This evacuation nightmare highlighted the need to widen the highway, a project that is now under way and expected to be completed by fall.

“We’re shooting for Labor Day, but it’ll be dependent on weather,” said Matthew Ericksen, division construction engineer for the Alabama Department of Transportation.

It took persistence and some creative financing, said Bondurant, who said he put pressure on Alabama Gov. Bob Riley and got him to commit $20 million in state and federal funds for the project if he and other proponents of the effort could somehow come up with the rest.

Bondurant said they really surprised Riley when they fulfilled their end of the deal, including getting Escambia County, Fla., to kick in $4 million (on top of $500,000 each from Flomaton and Escambia County, Ala.) toward Alabama’s project.

“When we came through, he was proud,” Bondurant said, noting the governor himself came down for the project’s groundbreaking.

Lead contractor Grady Ralls & Sons Inc. of Evergreen, Ala., started work on the job Sept. 12, 2007, according to the company. Project managers for the job are Eddie Ralls, Gil Ralls and Glynn Ralls.

Ericksen said the $22.7 million contract allows for 300 working days, but he expects work will be completed by October, if not before.

The original target was December, according to Grady Ralls & Sons. The company is ahead of schedule and has been the whole time.

The contract covers 13.5 mi. (21.7 km) of work on AL 113, and includes grading, drainage work, pavement and a bridge project to widen the state road from two lanes to a four-lane divided highway.

Because crews are building a new two-lane road to accommodate northbound traffic while the existing two-lane road will be converted to accommodate two lanes of southbound traffic, the project hasn’t affected current traffic patterns nor has it been a source of delays to local motorists, the company said.

Once the new roadway is finished, crews will shift northbound traffic there and resurface the original roadway under southbound traffic, Ericksen said.

AL 113 runs through a lot of fields and is mostly a straight shot.

“There are a few curves in it, but it’s pretty straight.”

The design calls for a couple of layers of soil aggregate base — a blend of existing materials, soil with some pea gravel mixed in — underneath the road, which is a little time-consuming, Ericksen said. But for the area, it is cheaper than using a crushed aggregate base, he said.

Crews will be using a 6-in. (15 cm) layer of crushed aggregate base instead of the soil aggregate base on about 2,000 ft. (610 m) on each end of the project, said ALDOT Project Engineer Mickey Jones.

That design makes it easier to tie in the existing roads with the new roadway, which will have two northbound lanes, two southbound lanes and a center turning lane at those points, Jones said.

They’re building the new roadway in portions, and, based on money, the job is about 55 percent complete, but that percentage will quickly jump once they start laying more asphalt, Ericksen said.

The widening work does involve building a new bridge for northbound traffic over Hall Creek, Ericksen said.

“It’s a little creek, but the flood plain is pretty wide,” he said.

The four-span, 204-ft. (62 m) bridge is about 90 percent complete, Ericksen said.

G.W. Norrell Contracting Co. Inc. of Georgiana, Ala., is the subcontractor on the bridge, according to Grady Ralls & Sons.

Because of the tight timeline on the job, Grady Ralls, which usually does the dirt work on its projects, brought in S.A. Graham Company Inc. of Brundidge, Ala., and Advance Construction Services Inc. of Brewton, Ala., as subcontractors for that work.

Other subcontractors on the job include: APAC-Southeast Inc. of Birmingham, Ala., which is doing the paving and a small portion of the dirt work; Ozark Striping Co. Inc. of Ozark, Ala., which is doing the striping; Protection Services Inc. in Birmingham, which is doing the permanent signs; and H&L Construction Inc. of Troy, Ala., which is doing the 5,000 linear ft. (1,524 m) of guard rails.

There are usually 50 to 75 workers on the job, depending on what work is being done that day.

Heavy equipment on the job has included excavators, bulldozers, loaders, dump trucks and motorgraders, including one equipped with a global positioning system, according to the contractor.

The Topcon Positioning Systems Inc. product is a big timesaver, according to Grady Ralls & Sons. Instead of going out and manually setting hubs, the operator just enters the desired grade and the machine sets itself.

Crew members also have been using several large John Deere farm tractors with dirt pans behind them on the job, the company said. A lot of them were bought for this job from Warrior Tractor Co. in Monroeville, Ala.

While it doesn’t use John Deere equipment exclusively, the company tends to favor the brand, and much of its heavy equipment was purchased from Warrior.

“We have had really good service out of them; they are very helpful,” Grady Ralls & Sons said.

While not designed in concert with the AL 113 widening, another road-widening project about a mile away on U.S. 31 just north of Flomaton will complement the larger effort, Ericksen said.

W.S. Newell & Sons of Montgomery, Ala., won the $7.6 million contract for the project, which will fill a gap on the otherwise four-lane highway, he said. The roughly 2.5-mi. (4 km) stretch was left as a two-lane road because of right of way issues that had to be worked out, Ericksen said.

With the money already in place for the work, once the right of way issues were resolved, the project could move ahead, he said, so the timing was coincidental with the AL 113 job.

The job is currently in the grading stage, with about 45 percent of that work completed, said Adolphus Parker, project superintendent of W.S. Newell & Sons.

The company has about 15 workers in a single shift on the job, Parker said.

Despite a lot of rain, the job is pretty much on schedule, he said.

The project includes construction of a new two-lane bridge alongside an existing bridge crossing railroad tracks, Parker said.

Newell Bush Inc. of Montgomery is the subcontractor for construction of a 130-ft. (40 m) bridge.

One bent has been completed so far, he said.

Heavy equipment on the job includes one John Deere and two Caterpillar excavators, three Caterpillar dozers, an Ingersoll Rand roller, a Caterpillar motorgrader and some scrapers, Parker said.

The company has bought a lot of Caterpillars over the years from Thompson Caterpillar in Montgomery, Parker said.

They’ve found Cats to be really durable and reliable, he said.

While the completion of the road widening projects will mean a much smoother evacuation process in the event of a hurricane next season, the benefits are much more far-reaching.

Bondurant said that while he didn’t push the AL 113 road-widening project as an economic development tool for his town, it certainly is one. It will bring more traffic — and with it a market for businesses — through Flomaton, he said.

According to U.S. Census Bureau data, the town’s population declined from 1,882 in 1980 to 1,588 in 2000.

“We feel like it’s going to help us,” Bondurant said. “This is going to keep Flomaton from dying. … We’ve already got a hotel coming. … When it’s done, traffic will really increase. It’s the best route to the beaches.” CEG

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